Santa Rosa to delay Courthouse Square project

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Santa Rosa is finished studying the environmental impacts of reunifying Old Courthouse Square, but don't expect a Healdsburg-style central plaza to materialize anytime soon.

The traffic, noise and disruption to downtown businesses from the proposal are clear to anyone who wants to pore over the 427-page document.

What's still unknown is where the $14 million to build it will come from and how the city will be able to accomplish the undertaking given the workload facing city staff as it explores the annexation of Roseland.

"Yes, it's going to be delayed," Mayor Scott Bartley said of a project that has been on the city's wish list for 17 years. "That's just reality."

The City Council has committed to launch a four-year, multi-phase planning effort, cost analysis and cost-sharing discussion with the county over annexation of the 620-acre piece of the Roseland neighborhood that remains unincorporated. It's such a heavy lift for city staff across several departments that other major efforts such as Old Courthouse Square are certain to be either slowed or put on hold for a time, Bartley said.

"I don't want to start on something if there's no chance of our making significant progress," Bartley said.

The delay will disappoint those who feel the reunification is a much-needed makeover that will restore vitality to downtown. But others, including supporters of a fountain by sculptor Ruth Asawa, will be pleased to see the project stall.

Asawa, a renowned Japanese-American artist from San Francisco known for her public fountains, designed the four concrete friezes that since 1987 have graced the Courthouse Square fountain. She died last year at age 87.

Of the 34 comments received by the city on the study, several protested the proposed destruction of the fountain and relocation of the panels.

"Let's not be foolish," wrote Lucia McNally in her comments on the EIR. "Save this work of art!"

The city noted that the plan calls for the panels to be reinstalled at various locations around the remodeled plaza.

Other comments expressed a range of concerns about the project.

Some questioned the wisdom of building a 25-foot high "water wall" in light of the drought. Others raised concerns about the cost of the project, the impact on traffic of closing off a block of Mendocino Avenue and the construction impacts on nearby businesses.

Several didn't think that the plan to rebuild Hinton and Exchange streets on the east and west sides of the square made sense. Others just felt the city just had too many needs to justify such an expense.

"People are out of work, hungry and ill-housed," wrote Susan Spar. "The schools lack resources. Court budgets are being slashed. Roads are going to pot. This is where our time and money should be going."

The city doesn't have much money set aside for the project, but Bartley said he's hoping a fundraising committee can be established. There haven't been any further conversations with a group that last year proposed privatizing the project, Bartley said.

Eric Anderson, a New York City developer, said if City Hall expressed interest in pursuing a public-private partnership to help develop the project, his group remains interested.

The council will consider approving the study at its Feb. 25 meeting. Then in May it will have to decide which version of the project to pursue, specifically whether to add Hinton and Exchange streets.

But Bartley cautioned against suggestions that the city should rethink major elements, such as the water wall or light arbor, that were integral to the 2007 design prepared by SWA Group of Sausalito and unanimously selected by a city committee.

"This is not the time to do a redesign," Bartley said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)

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